Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Tsar's Wine Cellar in Crimea

We're still working through our long back-log of posts from last year's visits to Ukraine, and on a bright sunny day here in the Catskills, back from a day driving through the Finger Lakes wine country, I thought I'd write about our visit to Massandra Winery,  near Yalta, in Crimea.
Last July,  Sarah, Barb Wieser, Serdar Sepatiev and I set off to see Yalta and make a stop at the winery on a beautiful sunny July day.  Leaving Simferopol,  we got on a crowded bus,  along the way, passing stands selling the famous red Yalta onions.   We kept an eye out for the stop for Massandra Winery on the way down, and decided to stop on the way back up.  With the help, as usual,  from some of our fellow riders, we got off at the right place and walked up to the winery, in one of the most spectacular locations for a winery I've ever seen.   The winery's first winemaker Prince Lev Golitzin built collection of old and rare wines in Massandra in addition to producing ports and wines including Tokay and Muscat, using grapes from locally planted vineyards.

The winery buildings were built in 1894-1897 and have survived the upheavals from the time of the tsars through World War II and the rule of the Soviets.  It was initially built to supply--and store-- wines for Tsar Nicholas II's summer palace at Yalta.  Supposedly the tunnels at the winery proved the perfect temperature for wine storage and eventually Stalin ordered all wines from all the palaces brought to Massandra.  During World War II, the tunnels were bricked in to preserve the wine from the Nazi invaders.   Some of those rare vintages collected by the tsars, preserved by Stalin and still retaining their vitality,  have made their way to wine auctions at Sotheby's, selling for thousands of dollars. 
From my museum perspective, Massandra offers one of the best-organized (and not surprisingly,  costly) visitor experiences with a guided tour.  The tour was conducted in Russian,  and thanks to Serdar's interpretation, we got most of the information.  Massandra's history--wines for the tsars,  hiding wines from the Nazis during World War II,  early wine production, and the modern methods of wine production were all highlighted.
As a bit of internet research seems to tell me,  wine has been made in Crimea for more than 2500 years, with Greek settlers growing grapes in the rocky soil overlooking the Black Sea.  But modern winemaking begins with the winery near Yalta established by Count Mikhail Vorontsov in 1820 and a viticulture institute founded soon thereafter in 1828.
In the Soviet Union,  Ukraine (primarily Crimea) was the largest supplier of wines to the nation;  but Mikhail Gorbachov's campaign against alcoholism ("to health!"  says the poster) in the late 1980s was disastrous for Crimean vineyards--more than 300 square miles of vineyards were destroyed.  Today, however,  we saw vineyards popping up all over Crimea's hills,  with young vines taking root.
In many ways, Massandra reminds me of much about Ukraine:  ancient roots, complicated histories, a deep connection to the land, determination, and, despite difficulties, hopes for the future.  Now that's worth raising a glass to!

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